John Calvin Responding to the Fourth Session of the Council of Trent

The following is an excerpt from John Calvin’s famous “Antidote to the Council of Trent.”


There is an old proverb, — The Romans conquer by sitting. Trusting to this, those degenerate and bastard sons of the Roman See, i.e., the great harlot, sat down to conquer when they appointed the third session. For what hinders them from raising a trophy, and coming off victorious to their hearts content, if we concede to them what they have comprehended in one decree? There are four heads: First, they ordain that in doctrine we are not to stand on Scripture alone, but also on things handed down by tradition. Secondly, in forming a catalogue of Scripture, they mark all the books with the same chalk, and insist on placing the Apocrypha in the same rank with the others. Thirdly, repudiating all other versions whatsoever, they retain the Vulgate only, and order it to be authentic. Lastly, in all passages either dark or doubtful, they claim the right of interpretation without challenge. These four things being established, who can deny that the war is ended? Wherefore, their after discussions were more for ostentation than from any necessity for them; for whatever they produce, if supported by no authority of Scripture, will be classed among traditions, which they insist should have the same authority as the Law and the Prophets. What, then, will it be permitted to disapprove? for there is no gross old wife’s dream which this pretext will not enable them to defend; nay, there is no superstition, however monstrous, in front of which they may not place it like a shield of Ajax. Add to this, that they provide themselves with new supports when they give full authority to the Apocryphal books. Out of the second of the Maccabees they will prove Purgatory and the worship of saints; out of Tobit satisfactions, exorcisms, and what not. From Ecclesiasticus they will borrow not a little. For from whence could they better draw their dregs? I am not one of those, however, who would entirely disapprove the reading of those books; but in giving them in authority which they never before possessed, what end was sought but just to have the use of spurious paint in coloring their errors? But as the Hebrew or Greek original often serves to expose their ignorance in quoting Scripture, to check their presumption, and so keep down their thrasonic boasting, they ingeniously meet this difficulty also by determining that the Vulgate translation only is to be held authentic. Farewell, then, to those who have spent much time and labor in the study of languages, that they might search for the genuine sense of Scripture at the fountainhead! At least it has been amply provided by this decree that they shall give no farther trouble to the Romanists. Is not this to subdue Greece and all the East? One thing still was wanting; for disagreeable men were always springing up, who, when anything was brought into question, could not be satisfied without Scripture proof! There are others too clear-sighted, since even in the Vulgate translation they find weapons wherewith to annoy the Papacy. That they may not sustain loss from this quarter, they devise a most excellent remedy, when they adjudge to themselves the legitimate interpretation of Scripture. Who can now imagine any improvidence in them? By one article they have obtained the means of proving what they please out of Scripture, and escaping from every passage that might be urged against them. If Confession is to be proved, they are ready with — “Show yourselves to the priests.” If it be asked, Whether recourse should be had to the intercession of the dead? the passage will immediately occur, “Turn to some one of the saints;” also, “For this every holy man will pray to thee.” Nor will Purgatory be left without a sure foundation, for it is written, “He shall not come out thence till he shall have paid the uttermost farthing.” In short, anything may be made of anything! When they formerly produced such passages they made themselves ridiculous even to children. Now, if credit is given them, the right of authorized interpretation will remove every doubt. For what passage can be objected to them so clear and strong that they shall not evade it? Any kind of quibble will at once relieve them from difficulty. Against opposing arguments they will set up this brazen wall — Who are you to question the interpretation of the Church? This, no doubt, is what they mean by a saying common among them, in that Scripture is a nose of wax, because it can be formed into all shapes. If postulates of this kind were given to mathematicians, they would not only make an ell an inch, but prove a mile shorter than an ell, till they had thrown everything into confusion.

What, then, are we to do with this victorious and now, as it were, triumphal Session? Just stand and let the smoke clear away. In regard to Traditions, I am aware that not unfrequent mention of them is made by ancient writers, though not with the intention of carrying our faith beyond the Scriptures, to which they always confine it. They only say that certain customs were received from the Apostles. Some of them appear to have that origin, but others are unworthy of it. These touch only upon a few points, and such as might be tolerated. But now we are called to believe, that whatever the Romanists are pleased to obtrude upon us, flowed by tradition from the Apostles; and so shameless are they, that without observing any distinction, they bring into this class things which crept in not long ago, during the darkness of ignorance. Therefore, though we grant that the Apostles of the Lord handed down to posterity some customs which they never committed to writing; still, first, this has nothing to do with the doctrine of faith, (as to it we cannot extract one iota from them,) but only with external rites subservient to decency or discipline; and secondly, it is still necessary for them to prove that everything to which they give the name is truly an apostolical tradition. Accordingly they cannot, as they suppose, find anything here to countenance them either in establishing the tyranny of their laws, by which they miserably destroy consciences, or to cloak their superstitions, which are evidently a farrago gathered from the vicious rites of all ages and nations. We especially repudiate their desire to make certainty of doctrine depend not less on what they call agrafa, (unwritten,) than on the Scriptures. We must ever adhere to Augustine’s rule, “Faith is conceived from the Scriptures.”

Of their admitting all the Books promiscuously into the Canon, I say nothing more than it is done against the consent of the primitive Church. It is well known what Jerome states as the common opinion of earlier times. And Ruffinus, speaking of the matter as not at all controverted, declares with Jerome that Ecclesiasticus, the Wisdom of Solomon, Tobit, Judith, and the history of the Maccabees, were called by the Fathers not canonical but ecclesiastical books, which might indeed be read to the people, but were not entitled to establish doctrine. I am not, however, unaware that the same view on which the Fathers of Trent now insist was held in the Council of Carthage. The same, too, was followed by Augustine in his Treatise on Christian Doctrine; but as he testifies that all of his age did not take the same view, let us assume that the point was then undecided. But if it were to be decided by arguments drawn from the case itself, many things beside the phraseology would show that those Books which the Fathers of Trent raise so high must sink to a lower place. Not to mention other things, whoever it was that wrote the history of the Maccabees expresses a wish, at the end, that he may have written well and congruously; but if not:, he asks pardon. How very alien this acknowledgment from the majesty of the Holy Spirit!

In condemning all translations except the Vulgate, as the error is more gross, so the edict is more barbarous. The sacred oracles of God were delivered by Moses and the Prophets in Hebrew, and by the Apostles in Greek. That no corner of the world might be left destitute of so great a treasure, the gift of interpretation was added. It came to pass — I know not by what means, but certainly neither by judgment nor right selection — that of the different versions, one became the favourite of the unlearned, or those at least who, not possessing any knowledge of languages, desired some kind of help to their ignorance. Those, on the other hand, who are acquainted with the languages perceive that this version teems with innumerable errors; and this they make manifest by the clearest evidence. On the other hand, the Fathers of Trent contend, that although the learned thus draw the pure liquor from the very fountain, and convict the infallible Vulgate of falsehood, they are not to be listened to. No man possessed of common sense ever presumed to deprive the Church of God of the benefit of learning. The ancients, though unacquainted with the languages, especially with Hebrew, always candidly acknowledge that nothing is better than to consult the original, in order to obtain the true and genuine meaning. I will go further. There is no man of ordinary talent who, on comparing the Vulgate version with some others, does not easily see that many things which were improperly rendered by it are in these happily restored. The Council, however, insists that we shall shut our eyes against the light that we may spontaneously go astray.

Who could have imagined they would be so senseless as thus boldly to despise the judgments of good men, and hesitate not to make themselves odious and detestable to all? Those who were aware that they had nothing useful in view, were yet persuaded that they would make some show of it to the world, and assign to some of their sworn adherents the task of executing a new version. In this instance, however, they use no deceit. They not only order us to be contented with a most defective translation, but insist on our worshipping it, just as if it had come down from heaven; and while the blemishes are conspicuous to all, they prohibit us from desiring any improvement. Behold the men on whose judgment the renovation of the Church depends!

It were tedious beyond measure to mark the passages erroneously and absurdly rendered. So far is there from being an entire page, that there are scarcely three continuous verses without some noted blunder. As a specimen, let the Book of Psalms suffice, in which I will touch on a few examples in passing, more to give my readers a sample which may dispose them to ascertain for themselves, than to give full information. In the second Psalm is the well-known exhortation, “Kiss the Son.” For this the Vulgate has, “Lay hold of discipline!” There is no resemblance. While the former is clearly correct, why should the latter be held the more authentic? The Vulgate interpreter has,

“Sons of man, how long will you with a heavy heart?” while the Hebrew has nothing like this, but, “How long will ye turn my glory into shame?” (Psalm 4:3.)

Where David complains that his sap was turned into the drought of summer, (Psalm 32:4,) the translator has substituted, “I am turned in my sorrow till the thorn is fixed.” Again, in another verse, “In their mouths is bit and bridle to prevent them from approaching thee;” but the translator says, “With hook and rein curb the jaws of those who do not draw near unto thee.” And what are we to understand by “lungs filled with illusions,” in Psalm 38?

But I act imprudently in entering a boundless forest; I will therefore confine myself to a single Psalm. It will be the sixty-eighth. There David, among the other praises of God, mentions this also, that he makes the single to dwell in a house, i.e., enriches the solitary and childless with a family. The translator substitutes, that he makes them “of one manner.” The next words are, “He places the rebellious in a dry parched place.” For this the translator has, “In like manner those who exasperate; who dwell in the tombs.” Afterward, where the meaning is perfectly obvious in the words of David, the translator makes a riddle fit to puzzle an OEdipus. David says, “The kings of armies have fled, have fled, and the dwellers of the house, i.e., the women who remained at home, have divided the spoil.” The translator says, “The king, the virtue of the beloved, beloved, and houses of appearance, have divided the spoil.” A little further on, “Though ye have slept among the pots;” translator, “among the clergy!” “To look up to the piled mountains” he substitutes for, “To envy the fertile mountains.” Where the Hebrew original has, “Even the rebellious, that God the Lord may dwell,” the translator has, “Even those not believing that God the Lord dwells.” Again, when the literal meaning is, “I will bring back from Bashan, I will bring back from the depths of the sea,” the translator gives the very opposite, “I will turn from Bashan, I will turn into the depth of the sea.” Again, “There is little Benjamin their ruler.” The translator (I know not what he was thinking of) says, “In excess of mind.” I have gone over the half of the Psalm or rather more. What monstrosities do my readers already perceive!

And yet, to confess the truth, there is an excuse for the Latin translator, who gave the meaning of the Greek version as exactly as he could. But who can tolerate those blunderers, who would rob the Church of the gift of interpretation, and thus, as it were, close up the entrance, that none might have access to the pure meaning of David? Add, that they not only prefer the ignorance and blunders of their interpreters to the true renderings of others, but there is no hallucination, however gross, to which they will not give the power of a divine oracle. There is an example of this in Psalm 132. The Lord there promises that he will bless the food of his people. Some luscious priestling, reading the c and t as one letter, makes the word vidum; but as there is no such word, the insertion of a letter introduced a new reading, which prevails throughout the Papacy, and hence there is no church in Italy, France, Spain, and Germany, in which they do not with loud voice bawl out, “His widow blessing, I will bless.” And so attentive and clear-sighted are they, that none of them has observed the ridiculous corruption. But it is not strange that, when they rob us of the word for bread, they introduce the mention of widowhood, since the object on which they are wholly bent is cruelly to bereave souls of the bread of heavenly life. What! are they not ashamed to make the Vulgate version of the New Testament authoritative, while the writings of Valla, Faber, and Erasmus, which are in everybody’s hands, demonstrate with the finger, even to children, that it is vitiated in innumerable places? In the first chapter of the Romans the translator calls Christ “the predestinated Son of God.” Those not acquainted with Greek are at a loss to explain this term, because, properly speaking, only things which do not yet exist are predestinated; whereas Christ is the eternal Son of God. There is no difficulty in the Greek word, which means “declared.” I have given one example. It were needless labor to give others. In one word, were this edict of the Council sanctioned, the simple effect would be, that the Fathers of Trent would make the world look with their eyes open, and yet not see the light presented to them.

I come to the right of interpreting, which they arrogate to themselves whenever the meaning is doubtful. It is theirs, they say, to give the meaning of Scripture, and we must acquiesce. For everything which they bestow upon the Church they bestow upon themselves. I acknowledge, indeed, that as Scripture, came not by the private will of man, (2 Peter 1:21) it is unbecoming to wrest it to the private sense of any man. Nay, in the case of an obscure passage, when it is doubtful what sense ought to be adopted, there is no better way of arriving at the true meaning than for pious doctors to make common inquiry, by engaging in religious discussion. But that is not now the question. They wish, by their tyrannical edict, to deprive the Church of all liberty, and arrogate to themselves a boundless license; for, be the meaning which they affix to Scripture what it may, it must be immediately embraced. Except themselves, moreover, no man will be permitted to prove anything out of Scripture. Would that they were equal to the performance of so great a task. But oxen usurp the reins, or rather asses the lyre. In short, their aim is to make all revere a Scripture hidden in darkness like the mysteries of Ceres, and let none presume to aspire to the understanding of it.

There would be no end were I to collect all the examples which would make it plain to my readers what fetters of iniquitous and intolerable slavery are forged by this decree. I will therefore give a specimen, in the case of only one Council. About the year 800 was held a Council of Nice, which both restored Images that had been overthrown under Leo and decreed that they were to be worshipped. That Council, because it supports idolatry, the Papists deem holy and lawful. Hence, according to their axiom, it cannot have erred in the exposition of Scripture. But if such interpreters of sacred things are to be listened to, (it is abominable to say they are,) the religion of the Egyptians will be preferable to the Christian. To prove from Scripture that churches were properly adorned with images and pictures, the following passages were adduced:—“God created man after his own image and likeness;” “Joshua erected twelve stones;” “No man lighteth a candle and putteth it under a bushel;” whence they inferred that images were to be placed upon altars! Again, “The light of thy countenance has been stamped upon us:” “as we have heard, so have we also seen;” “O Lord, I have loved the beauty of thy house;” “Show me thy face, for it is lovely.” In support of adoration, they wrested the following passages: — “Abraham worshipped the people of the land;” “Jacob set up an inscription, and blessed.” Again, “He worshipped the top of the staff of his son Joseph;” “All the rich among the people will deprecate thy countenance;” “Worship his footstool;” “God is to be admired in his saints.” And that nothing might be wanting to crown their effrontery, they appended out of another psalm, “His saints who are on the earth.” This they applied to images!

I am aware that the narrative I now give will scarcely seem credible. I was myself amazed when I read it, though our ears should long ago have been trained by them to any absurdities, however enormous. Were I to collect all their interpretations, which even children would laugh at, and not even all, but those which are distinguished by some notable absurdity, I would require to form a volume thrice as large as the Bible.

The sum is, that the spirit of Trent wished, by this decree, that Scripture should only signify to us whatever dreaming monks might choose. For what else do they mean by the Church? Though the Roman bishops, I mean all who serve under the banner and auspices of that Anti-Christian See, were to assemble from every quarter of the world, how, pray, could they, by laying their heads together frame a proper version for us? Many of them hardly knew the elements of grammar. At least, they will not venture to deny that there is scarcely one in a hundred who has read an entire book of the Prophets, or one of the Apostolical Epistles, or one of the Gospels. They are too much occupied with other cares to have any leisure for sacred literature. The only resource is, to reserve the privilege for the Apostolic See, and say that the interpretation of Scripture must be sought from the holy lips of Paul Farnese! Otherwise, let them show us a Church which may justly be deemed able to sustain so great a burden. For, how highly soever they may extol the Roman See, they can never persuade some men either that Cephas is its head, or that chaste and holy marriage is the carnal life which is accursed in the sight of God. Both of these have been asserted in Papal responses. They cry out that the whole authority of the Church must fall if it is denied the right of interpreting Scripture — that a door would thus be thrown open to lascivious minds, allowing them to break through every restraint. Nay, in order to cast obloquy upon us, they are wont to charge us with arrogating the interpretation of Scripture to ourselves, in order that there may be no check on our licentiousness. Modesty will not allow me to speak of ourselves as fact would justify; and yet I will most truly declare that we have thrown more light upon the Scriptures than all the doctors who have appeared under the Papacy since its commencement. This praise even they themselves dare not deny us. Still there is none of us who does not willingly submit his lucubrations to the judgment of the Church. Therefore we neither contemn nor impair the authority of the Church; nor do we give loose reins to men to dare what they please. I wish they would show us such a Church as Scripture itself pourtrays; we should easily agree as to the respect due to it. But when, falsely assuming the name of Church, they seize upon the spoils of which they have robbed it, what else can we do than protest?

One Response to “John Calvin Responding to the Fourth Session of the Council of Trent”

  1. natamllc Says:

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